“Variety reports that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have teamed to produce a trilogy of Tintin feature films, with each director helming at least one of the features.” (Filmwad, May 2007). “Helming” reminds us of sea voyages and the bold expansion of human boundaries. For some reason we may also think of pirates. But, if you’ve just watched a TV documentary on Mao’s Cultural Revolution, you simply hope S and J will keep their own helmsman’s ambitions somewhere below the level of Great.
Maybe he’s not a secret superhero like Spiderman or Superman but, as a reporter,Tintin does have something in common with Clark Kent. In the era of the Internet this is no slight connection, because, soon, everyone on the planet — if not The Planet — will be reading and writing The Truth, or, at least, The Non-Corporate News.
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All right, then: set in China’s mining communities, Blind Shaft (Yang Li, 2004) is a modern morality tale about a murderous insurance scam. Unlike most prize-winning art films, the narrative doesn’t lose us in a swath of super-sophisticated editing and there’s an entirely believable upbeat ending. In short, it’s not so much worthy as worth ninety-two minutes of anybody’s time. But it still feels sadistic to rehearse the movie’s many virtues when Chinese people aren’t allowed to see it for themselves — not even when they can, if they want, read the book on which it’s based.
Some of us remember when filmgoers in the Free World were also presumed to be more rebellious than their book-reading counterparts and — in the case of the first release of Rock Around the Clock (Fred F Sears, 1956) — not without cause. This came to mind when, for reasons to be revealed, I chanced on Internet accounts of last October’s disturbing events in downtown Cairo. To be accurate, they took place outside a cinema. But, from local blogs and despite official denials, it’s clear that several young women were verbally and physically abused by overexcited individuals from a large crowd of otherwise “normal” young men. Unable to get into an end-of-Eid film-show, they’d all just been awarded the consolation prize of an impromptu street cabaret from Dina, one of Egypt’s highest-paid and best-known belly dancers. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
For women, the Free World may be thought less menacing than its more authoritarian holes and corners; but this hope is only sustained where literally senseless sexual attitudes are at least discussable — a vital first step before we can improve the tone of any neighbourhood.
Right now, however, “our” public discourse has other problems. Until Iraq, for example, it was felt that “our” media liked spontaneity almost too much, whereas it was always backward regimes that had no taste for amazing scenes unless choreographed to the last detail. “Shock and Awe” signified a bit of an ironic change in this regard, but that’s what some people call “progress.” (“Civil war? What civil war?”)
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As for stronger ideas of truth, my own most inspiring recent glimpse came with A House for Mr Biswas by V. S. Naipaul. This immortal work — thought, by its fans anyway, to be the best comic novel of the last, or any other, century — cries out to be made into a film. Only a few years ago that icon of radicalism, Tariq Ali — another journalist — tried to get it adapted for British TV and for his lack of success blamed not racism, but “ratingsism.”
Briefly, in the Trinidad Hindu community of the 1940s, the hectically family-bound and archetypal “failure,” Biswas, dreams of becoming a reporter, opening all his imaginary pieces thus: “Amazing scenes were witnessed …” As things turn out, and for several years off and on, Biswas actually realises his dream, though never getting to use that cherished opening phrase.
The Mystic Masseur (Ismail Merchant, 2001) is a lesser Naipaul effort which was made into a not-very-special film. But even without the timeless genius of Biswas, its provincial worldview free of clichés about the American Way — or, indeed, the anti-American alternative — still managed to intrigue some of us.
For a sombre satire on the American Way and the moral panic often associated with it, Todd Field’s Little Children, 2006, is a good effort, graced by a fine turn from Kate Winslet. But, happily for lovers of the genre, this is not an example of an endangered species. From the same implausibly productive year, Little Miss Sunshine (“Pretend we’re all normal!”) investigates the same themes with a tighter — and funnier — script. Homing in on Family Life and Public Morality, it’s no coincidence that this comes from an archetypally independent male/female directorial team: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.
An unexpectedly close cousin to the noble beasts just mentioned, Borat, (Larry Charles, 2006) may be the nearest Britain will ever get to explaining how lonely Tony Blair is on his side of the pond; but Sacha Baron Cohen’s approach to deadpan — though dead brave and dead funny — is occasionally just plain dead. Pause. N-o-o-o-t!
For something always lively and funny, my pitch for the unforgivably-neglected Biswas — as cinema or TV — relies on the participation of gifted comedy actor/writer team Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal. All right, they’re from the British Hindu diaspora; but, by now, so is Naipaul. And clinching their rightness for the job (producers, please note links with Little Miss Sunshine), one need only consider their own comic feel for the Family, particularly, though not exclusively, the kind of Family born of ethnic minority status. This is the force that drives the mighty Biswas; and the same energy is at the heart of Bhaskar/Syal’s The Kumars at No 42, which may yet wow all discriminating Americans. (So. No pressure, folks).
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Trueness-to-Life, Reportage, Art — when shall these three meet again? More to the point, were they ever actually as close as they claim? According to one view, for proof of a former association look no further than Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year(1722). The fact that the year in question is 1665, when Defoe himself was only five years old, tells us how much research was needed to produce a book posing as a first-hand account. And so it’s argued that this is the first great fusion of novel-writing and journalistic skills.
What, then, to make of rival claims made by Truman Capote’s publisher for In Cold Blood? These surface briefly in Capote (Bennett Miller, 2006) and, if they’re obviously not part of a bigger art/historical analysis, they do accurately evoke the cultural mood music of ’60s America. As the film also suggests, Capote’s Flaubertian pursuit of the mot juste, harnessed to the pulling power of a Real Crime story, proved in its day a matchless combination for millions of readers worldwide.
Structurally, Capote focuses on its chief subject’s personal charisma and, as the story moves on, his ultimately self-destructive attachment to Perry, one of two convicted murderers he befriends to provide material for his book. Inevitably with such a background, this movie has one or two presentational difficulties. Right at the start, for example, the film wants to show that, despite his diminutive stature and high speaking-voice, Truman’s charm overcomes initial rejection by the local police, without whose help no research will be possible. He needs to become, as it were, one of the family. But this process, which might indeed have been very rapid in reality, is so badly rushed on film that, for DVD viewers at least, there’s a strong urge here to hit rewind.
This is a jarring note in a production that generally succeeds in suggesting the pace of actual events, not least the six full years during which Truman devoted himself to his most famous piece of writing. The utter moral darkness into which the writer is finally dragged — his book can’t be released until Perry Smith and Dick Hickock are executed — is also horribly well evinced. Before that, we share some of the deep ambivalence Truman must have felt while urging Perry — the chief assailant — to give details of the murders. In fact, from this section of the screenplay we’re left with a miserably authentic sense that Herbert Clutter and his family died for the crime of being “too nice” — or, more accurately, for not being as desperately troubled as Smith and his not-quite-so-volatile accomplice.
Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” springs to mind, further authenticating the basic truthfulness of book and film. But with Truman’s “special feeling” for Perry,Capote enters a territory not only inherently dark but, at first encounter anyway, an excruciation too far for me.
Having given myself a while to reflect on the issue, it now seems obvious that this is where acting and screenplay had to go. What helped me most was recollecting Oscar Wilde’s decision, seriously questioned at the time by his closest advisers, to end The Ballad of Reading Gaol with an out-and-out statement against capital punishment. This isn’t about some dubiously close match involving gay men and/or criminal justice; nor am I thinking of links suggested by the famously grim aphorism “And all men kill [or wish for the death of] the thing they love.” What unites Reading Gaol and Capote is an art that comes out of such extreme experience that the end product may never be judged as art at all and might — heaven forbid — be forever labelled that vulgar, lapel-grabbing thing propaganda. (Don’t even mention hack journalism!)
Though I seriously doubt that Capote or Wilde wished tragedy on themselves, their innate — and, it could be said, naïve — sense of integrity clearly played a part in their different experiences of decline. In Capote’s case, the dreadful moral conflicts encountered while producing In Cold Blood left him creatively and socially all but paralysed: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s lead and Bennett Miller’s direction certainly prepare us to discover this bare fact from the closing titles.
In a way that differentiates him from Wilde, Capote was struck down, not so much by homophobic forces, real though they were, but by a totally incapacitating sense of personal guilt: the connection between getting his work out there and the literal deaths of his main characters — at least one of whom he seems to have fallen in love with — seems designed to break the hardiest of spirits.
All this begs disturbing questions not only about the moral status of public writing but about the public’s collusion in some of its more deadly side-effects. Important issues like these are successfully raised by Capote, and they easily outweigh mere topicality in the fight for our attention. Even so, in our world of evermore revealing, no-holds-barred, scandal-busting TV and press journalism, In Cold Blood — so much at the cutting edge in its day — looks, now, a strangely blunted instrument.
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In the netherworld of TV “shockumentaries” hidden micro-cams are busy setting the scandal agenda. In May 2007, British viewers have just been shown an exposé on “child” prostitution; though, in a programme centring on a couple of big European cities, the main subjects are predominantly adolescent males, most of whom are well into puberty. To its credit, this report throws light on activities so rapacious and cruel that no culture could possibly defend them as “normal’; more importantly, without awareness of serious abuses, we can’t possibly hope to eliminate them, let alone get over any kind of moral panic. All the same — as in too many other instances — one looks in vain for positive suggestions as to how we might prevent such evils. Immigration controls? Economic aid? Police training? Public education? Probably “yes” to each. In which case, let’s debate these ideas up front and not just leave things at the “something-must-be-done” level — an approach I find at best strangely distant, at worst pruriently sensationalist.
Moral panic, then, isn’t confined to America. But oddly relevant to this theme, and contrasting markedly with the ultimate fate of Truman Capote, I think of the case of German documentary film-maker Leni Riefenstahl. Her association with the Nazis, especially in Triumph of the Will (1935), is nothing if not clear-cut. Yet, to the end of her long life, Riefenstahl refused to let this haunt her conscience and cripple her either as a human being or as an artist. For many, such insensitivity only adds to her guilt. But for me it demonstrates the same kind of political naïvete that led John Wayne to pronounce Richard Nixon “the greatest living American” and — even more misguidedly — to make that tuneless hymn to the Vietnamese war, The Green Berets(Ray Kellog/John Wayne, 1968). Bryan Ferry has recently jumped into the same mud-bath by praising fascist aesthetics. He didn’t mention the architecture of Milan Central Station; but if he had, there would have been something more than a bit of rebel vanity to discuss.
Meanwhile, what rescues Riefenstahl from more superficial judgements is her own obsessive eye, not for nationalist propaganda but for human beauty, particularly in its male form, examples of which recur again and again throughout her work. Curiously enough for a “racist,” some of the most convincing evidence of this overriding passion emerges from her work in Africa, especially among Nubian tribesmen (above). (This, too, has been held against her because it was done in middle and old age when, as everybody knows, “normal” women spend all their free time at home with the grandchildren.)
Strangely enough, the Duke’s obsessions have their own very physical focus; and this, I think, is what allows them to dominate over narrower political foibles. Of course, such afterthoughts are not magical antioxidants, mopping up every last free radical floating around here. But they take me to the point where I can at last explain how, solely in the cause of duty, I came to be in Egypt — albeit the blogger’s version — reluctantly subjecting myself to the sinuous charms of Dina, the belly dancer.
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It all started innocently enough with my decision to view Sholay (Ramesh Sippy, 1975). People who know India will get the point when I say that, wherever this was originally screened, normal street-life practically ceased. At three-and-a-half hours, that’s a lot of ceasing anywhere; and — hoping that the remake on which he’s now at work will also do well — Ram Gopal Varma seems to have a whole pantheon of Indian Cinema gods giving their blessing.
Famously, Sholay has been dubbed the first “curry western”; but, even said with affection, this doesn’t begin to convey the number of genres so happily plundered here. And it might be thought that a structure so alien and ragged would give modern audiences — East or West — no chance of understanding the film’s continuing appeal.
But, like all great stories, and doing most to ensure its survival, Sholay is possessed of an unashamedly clear moral structure: not only are the good guys good, and vice versa; more importantly, the two male leads are an appealing mix of good and bad, imperfection and honour. With their weak adherence to the finer social rules and their unswerving devotion to each other, Jai and Veeru (Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra Deol) remind me of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the most ancient of all literary epics. More obviously relevant are the Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata.
Approached from less literary directions, Sholay is never less than wonderful family entertainment, and, having got the whole family together, it seizes the chance to make its moral point to the widest possible audience. At the sharp end of delivering this is Gabbar, leader of the baddies and played with enormous commitment by Amjad Khan. The very soul of unchastenable, fully professionalized Unrestraint, Gabbar is, of course, ultimately doomed.
Even so, the road to his final destruction is, to say the least, long and winding; and at one unforgettable point it provides not just Indian but world cinema with one of the most erotic song-and-dance routines ever put on film: the famous “Mehbooba, Mehbooba/Beloved, Beloved.” After another hard day’s villainy, Gabbar and the gang relax their guard as they enjoy the skills of a belly-dancing gypsy girl (or, if you prefer, a disco dance queen called Helen, above). The almost equally exciting music is also of western provenance and is adapted by the vastly successful doyen of Bollywood soundtracks, Rahul (R. D.) Burman. Fans will be aware that RD’s wife is the “sizzling songstress” Asha Bhosle, whose voice is possibly higher than Truman Capote’s and its effect definitely less unsettling. Nevertheless, “Mehbooba, Mehbooba” was sung by RD himself and “picturised” on Jalal Agha, who moves around the set staying close to, if not quite able to match, Helen and her desire-laden choreography.
Cynics might suspect that my own desires were aroused by all this, and cynics would be right. Despite the demands of the script, I also felt a bit sad that such erotic delight was associated so completely with the Lord of Misrule. But, you pays your money and you takes your choice; and, frankly, I’ve been jolted by far more uncomfortable moments of cinematic sex than this.
Finally, then, despite the much-emphasised oddness of this East/West hybrid, Sholay Manages to be both quintessentially Indian and universally accessible. Even more miraculously, without giving rise to moral or any other kind of panic in young, old, and all stations between, this is a film that remains truly, madly, and deeply alive.